“I asked how she was able to survive the pain and fear, what she felt kept her alive. [He] gave her translated words to me quietly. “Rage. She was furious.”
Nearly two months ago, we were grouped into rickety vans and taken away from the sanctum of our interim hotel to meet our temporary training host families. I was a bundle of nerves. From what I’ve heard, I was not alone. I finally have a few snap shots of that awkward, eager toddle toward my new mother for our first embrace.
I made a feeble attempt to explain the alien elegance of that day in the wat. This week, the beauty of that memory grew deeper still when we all convened once again at the same pagoda for a round table discussion with our host families. With the aide of our language instructors, family members would volunteer recollections about their experience during the Pol Pot years.
We were all rigid in the beginning in anticipation of the poignant moments to come. Chhorn let the moms know that we preferred for them to share what they felt comfortable with before we asked any questions. We could feel the tension ease as the women in the groups around us began to open up.
As my mai spoke, her eyes crinkled from her habitual smile, betraying not a shade of pain or sorrow. She could have been recounting details to Chhorn about the child’s birthday party which we attended last week. But, this was what she shared:
“Your mother was one of seven siblings. She is now the only survivor. She worked in the rice fields of Battambang as a teenager and was able to avoid illness and and injury and worked hard enough that her life was spared. Her mother was in a neighboring village although they were never able to visit. One day, she heard through other workers that her mother had died. A wound on her mother’s leg had become infected and spread, ultimately causing her to die beside the road. The people nearby did not have the strength, nor were they permitted to move her body. Over several days, foxes would come at night and eat away at her body.“
Mai sat regally in her speckled blouse with her hand on my knee, looking the part of the steely, proud grandmother that she is. Maddy’s mothered shared that she hates speaking of the Pol Pot years, that it pains her, but she feels that she simply has to, that this nation of young people needs to understand what her generation experienced when unbridled hatred and paranoia were left to fester. I turned again to my mother. I asked how she was able to survive the pain and fear, what she felt kept her alive. Chhorn gave her translated words to me quietly. “Rage. She was furious.”
After the Khmer Rouge was driven out of Phnom Penh and Vietnamese occupation began, Mai walked all the way from Battambang to Siem Riep province for several days. Once there she received word, somehow, from a surviving aunt. She met this aunt here, in Kandal Province, seeking refuge and family connection. She was about 18 at the time. Upon arrival, her aunt half-encouraged, half-forced her to marry a surviving cousin for the sake of marriage and stability within the family. The young honeymooners moved to a neighboring province where he quickly proved himself a poor husband. Mai up and left him, went back to her aunt’s, and sent him notice that if intended to remain her husband, he could return to Kandal and live with her and her aunt. Or, the marriage was off. He arrived to try and persuade her otherwise, but her resolve was clear. No. They divorced. Uncommon to say the least; nearly unthinkable in a post-genocidal landscape where the bachelors are few and far between.
Mai, a divrocee at 19, began selling sugarcane juice at the local health center. It was here that she met my host father, where they fell in love. She did not want to marry. From what Chhorn explained, they were never official, but they made it appear as such for the community and managed to have five children together. “It was just better that way,” said Chhorn. Mai and banhg srey beamed at us. It’s okay, girls. Eat your rice snacks.
The Khmer people have developed a term, “baksbat,” which loosely translates as “broken courage.” It is comparable to PTSD but it is more culturally nuanced and it is transmissible to the next generation. After the majority of the Khmer Rouge were driven toward the Thai border, many of them were later assimilated into contemporary society and government. Some KR officials were convicted by the occupant Vietnamese army for their heinous acts, only to be later pardoned by the Cambodian government. There was no true sense of cut and dry justice as we often think of it in the U.S. One did not have to suffer the cruelty of the KR firsthand to share the pain. My host sister who we lovingly call “banhg srey mai” (big sister mom) is an example.
She attended the round table to hear our mother speak as well. The unconventional structure of our family has been taxing for her long before and now after the death of her young husband, all of which can largely be traced back to her mother’s hardship under Pol Pot. She misses her father, she has told me, and she aches for her mother’s pain. This woman has a half dozen trades to keep her afloat, not to mention pressing sugar cane into juice just like her mom did way back when. With no husband to speak of, two young children, a distant father, and an independent mother, our company has been welcomed in her life. And vice versa.
Christy was visiting her husband’s village on Sunday, so it was to be an occasion for both bahng srey and myself: she would teach me how to make her sour curry soup. Cooking this coveted recipe, like all good rituals, had many beautiful steps. First we headed across the street to buy morning glory fresh from my om srey’s (elder auntie’s) garden.
Om can be seen just about anywhere in the village at any given time of day, often sporting her favorite leather jacket. She grows morning glory and Asian long beans – the *sweetest* Asian long beans in the puum (village). She snapped off a few vines and beans for us, then stood smiling under her vines inviting me to snap a few photos. She has no children and lives alone in this thatch hut. I have wondered about her many times, exchanged smiles daily, and had countless sit downs with her in which she speaks and speaks to the air and I sit with her, uncomprehending, but listening nonetheless.
Banhg srey mai and her son, my nephew Leng, walked me through the salient steps of sour curry soup. Lime leaves, fresh tumeric, garlic, lemon grass, and chilis. Leng even helped me “beich” the spices.
The final product had me swooning in spicy aromas and genuine pride. As I shared the meal with bahng srey, I had a moment of presence that sent me reeling. How did I get here? Sharing a homecooked meal and decent conversation with my Khmer sister of only 6 weeks now? I wondered whether or not family is a universal recipe, given the strength of our ties despite gaping void of language between us. Some things have proven ubiquitous. All kids want to play at the height of study time. All chefs want you to finish your food and will make this known. And sometimes mothers just need to hover nearby, feigning housework in order to monitor your clothes-washing methods/jump in for the assist if need be.
My stalwart mother, sisters, and all my little monsters are the faces I bear in mind when we are sent into the community for practicums, AKA boundless chaos. This week’s topic was nutrition, specifically for children and breast-feeding mothers. Despite Cambodia’s impressive economic growth in the past 10 years, the national rate for childhood stunting has remained deplorable and doesn’t look like it will budge anytime soon. Traditional beliefs, especially in rural areas, dictated for many years that mothers of newborns discard the colostrum (first most nutritious breastmilk) and promoted the belief that rice provided most of the necessary nutrients for proper growth. To complicate things, Big Food has it’s foot in the Cambodian door. According to *this* article, **”import of soft drinks and sweets into Cambodia rose by a staggering 5,041% and 24,334% respectively”** between 2003 and 2008 alone. With constant barrage of hyperpalatable processed malarky ruining young pallets, good old fruits and veggies are becoming a tougher sell for kids every day. We partnered up with local village health volunteers and invited families to our education activity where we shared simple strategies for adding nutrients to plain borbor (rice porridge) for little ones.
Well, that’s a simplification. We TRIED to communicate, politely, some ways to beef-up easy weaning foods for kids without being patronizing, preaching, or being presumptive of our participants – a difficult feat in your native language, let alone a strange new dialect you’ve been learning for barely 6 weeks. But yet again, like every practicum before this one, we survived. When the dust was settled, babies had been weighed, mothers were shown growth charts, and everyone and their sister was stuffed to the gills with mashed bananas and/or pumpkin borbor. However, I thought I felt our hearts collectively sink a bit when a well-meaning staff member arrived with packaged snacks as a door prize for attendees. Sigh.
We did our best. If nothing else, we ultimately understood the magnitude and gravity of the task before us. The Peace Corps approach to development encourages capacity building. This is best explained by the “teach a man to fish” parable in which an individual benefits more over time if you provide them with the skills the need to help themselves. We do these practicums every week in a somewhat transactional method: get in, complete the described tasks, get out, debrief as a group and move on. As the weeks have gone on, I have struggled with the reality of the lives through which we are strolling, the experience of our community participants and the “driveby” nature of our presence in these training villages. Peace Corps does not station permanent volunteers in Kandal Province. It is somewhat comparable to the suburbs, surrounding the city wherein access to nutritious food should be greater. But still. Out of the many kids I pass each, how many of them will avoid diarrheal disease and survive beyond first five years of life? How will reach peak bone mass and achieve full cognitive development? How many of the girls will reach a healthy weight for height and break free from the cycle of intergenerational malnutrition? When I get to my permanent site, how will I learn to seek out the bright spots and turn a blind eye to the casualties of steady, sustainable development?